Prudence, Goodness,
and Wisdom

Dedit quoque Deus sapientiam Salomoni et prudentiam multam nimis.

And God gave Solomon wisdom and exceedingly great understanding.

1 Kings 4:29 (Hebrew 5:9, Septuagint 5:5) [note]

Ecce timor Domini ipsa est sapientia
et recedere a malo intellegentia.

Behold, the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom;
and to shun evil understanding.

Job, 28:28

For the LORD [] giveth wisdom [, chokhmâh]: out of his mouth cometh knowledge and understanding [].

Proverbs 2:6

Get wisdom [], get understanding...

Proverbs 4:5

The Master said, "The wise are not confused,
the benevolent not worried, the brave not afraid."

Confucius, Analects IX:28/29, translation after Joanna C. Lee & Ken Smith [2010] [note]

I have not been neglectful of truthful words.

The "Negative Confession" or Protestation of Ani, The Egyptian Book of the Dead, The Book of Going Forth by Day, The Complete Papyrus of Ani, Featuring Integrated Text and Full-Color Images, translated by Dr. Raymond O. Faulkner [1994, 1998, Chronicle Books, San Francisco, 2008, Chapter 125, Plate 31], hieroglyphic transcription, E.A. Wallis Budge, The Egyptian Book of the Dead, The Papyrus of Ani [1895, Dover Publications, 1967, p.201] -- the twenty-sixth Confession as translated (in both references), but the 17th in the order of the manuscript -- the group "ì-h.r" may accidentally have been copied twice in the manuscript. Note the use of the significant word for truth and justice.

The truth is this:  none of the gods loves wisdom [] or desires to become wise []; for they are wise already.

, Nor does anyone else who is wise love wisdom.

, Neither do the ignorant love wisdom, or desire to become wise,

for this is the harshest thing about ignorance, that those who are neither good [] nor beautiful [] nor sensible [] think that they are good enough.

No one desires what they are lacking when they do not think themselves lacking.

Plato, Symposium, 203E-204A, Lysis, Symposium, Gorgias, translated by W.R.M. Lamb, Loeb Classical Library, Harvard University Press, 1925, 1991, pp. 182-183, translation modified.

Hence it is clear that wisdom [] must be the most perfect of cognitions [, German Erkentnisse]. The wise man therefore must not only know the conclusions that follow from his first principles [], but also have a true conception of those principles themelves. Hence wisdom must be a combination of mind [, which knows first principles/axioms] and science [, which derives theorems from the axioms]. It must be a consummated knowledge of the most exalted objects.

For it is absurd to think that politics [] or prudence [] is the loftiest kind of knowledge, inasumuch as man is not the best of things in the world...

This is why people say that men like Anaxagoras and Thales 'may be wise [] but are not prudent [],' when they see them display ignorance of their own interests...

Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, VI, vii, 2-3, 5, translated by H.Rackham, modified, Loeb Classical Library, Harvard University Press, 1926, 1982, pp.342-343, p.345

...the theoretical (sciences) [ ()] are held to be wiser [] than the practical/productive [].

Aristotle, Metaphysics, I, i, 981b, 31-32, 932a, 1-2, translated by Hugh Tredennick, modified, Loeb Classical Library, Harvard University Press, 1933, 2003, pp.8-9

The wise know what they are doing, have judgment, and know the value of things. Fools do not know the value of things, have no judgment, and do not know what they are doing. Divine fools do the wise thing without knowing what they are doing and value the right things even without judgment.

Enklinobarangus ()

A yong man called Melibeus, mighty and riche, bigat upon his wif, that called was Prudence, a doghter which that called was Sophie.

Geoffrey Chaucer, "The Tale of Melibee," The Canterbury Tales, Edited by Jill Mann, Penguin, 2005, p.511, original spelling, boldface added.

che uno principe il quale non sia savio per sé stesso, non può essere consigliato bene...

A prince who is not wise himself cannot be wisely counseled...

Niccolò Machiavelli, The Prince [Daniel Donno translation, Bantam, 1981, p. 82], Italian text, Il Principe, Nuova edizione a cura di Giorgio Inglese [Giulio Einaudi editore s.p.a., Torino, 2013 e 2014, p. 171]

We cannot insure to the vicious the fruits of a virtuous life; we would not invade the home of the provident in order to supply the wants of the spendthrift; we do not propose to transfer the rewards of industry to the lap of indolence.

William Jennings Bryan, 1896

To recap: Congress subsidized a product [cellulosic ethanol] that didn't exist, mandated its purchase though it still didn't exist, is punishing oil companies for not buying the product that doesn't exist, and is now doubling down on the subsidies in the hope that someday it might exist. We'd call this the march of folly, but that's unfair to fools.

The Wall Street Journal, "The Cellulosic Ethanol Debacle," Tuesday, December 13, 2011, A20

[1 Corinthians 1:22] For the Jews require a sign [], and the Greeks seek after wisdom []: [1:23] But we preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews a stumblingblock [], and unto the Greeks foolishness []; [1:24] But unto them which are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God, and the wisdom of God. [1:25] Because the foolishness [] of God is wiser [] than men; and the weakness of God is stronger than men.

[1 Corinthians 3:18] Let no one deceive himself. If any one among you thinks that he is wise [] in this age, let him become a fool [] that he may become wise []. [3:19] For the wisdom [] of this world is folly [] with God. For it is written [Job 5:13], "He catches the wise in their craftiness," [3:20] and again [Psalms 94:11], "The Lord knows that the thoughts of the wise are futile."

To Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, philosophy is about wisdom. The word "philosophy," , philosophía, to "love" (phileîn) "wisdom" (sophía, ), supposedly coined by Pythagoras, reflects this. Just what wisdom would involve, however, became a matter of dispute. When it was said by Delphi that no one was wiser than Socrates, he set out to test this by examining those with the greatest reputation for wisdom, the politicians. The wisdom of such persons, of course, is going to be about practical affairs -- hê toiaútê areté, hê anthrôpínê te kaì politiké, , , "the kind of virtue, the human and political," as Socrates puts it. Plato never disagreed with this. Despite his view of the transiency of human affairs and the transcendence of the World of Forms, Plato always held to the idea that the supreme knowledge would be of supreme practical application. The Republic, which concerns just such knowledge in just such an application, is metaphysically topped of with the theory of the Form of the Good:  ultimate reality is identical with ultimate value. The philosopher who leaves the Cave and sees genuine reality therefore can do nothing better than to reenter the Cave and put his knowledge to good use. Since Plato thinks that the philosopher will not want to do this, he says that the philosopher should be forced to do it.

While Aristotle is honored by the empirical and practical minded for being more down to earth and realistic (let alone "scientific") than Plato, his view of the nature of wisdom ironically is of knowledge that is thoroughly theoretical and impractical. To Socrates, the question about practical wisdom was the first thing in philosophy. Not for Aristotle. With him, metaphysics obtains the sovereign position, since it is about the highest things in reality, culminating in God. This is of no practical significance in human affairs, but then it does posit the highest of all meaningful human activities, contemplating God. That is genuine wisdom for Aristotle. The reign of metaphysics as First Philosophy then continued until Descartes, when we get the modern turn by which it is replaced with epistemology and then, in effect, science, which is practical in its own way, but not in the form of any moral or ethical knowledge of the good or any guidance in the worthy ends of human activity.

"Practical wisdom" Aristotle calls phrónêsis (), as opposed to sophía (). This translated into Latin as prudentia and so gets us the English word "prudence." Aristotle says,

Now it is held to be the mark of a prudent man [, phrónimos] to be able to deliberate well about what is good and advantageous for himself [ ], not in some one department, for instance what is good for his health or strength, but what is advantageous as a means to the good life in general [ ]. [Nicomachean Ethics, VI, v, 1-2, Loeb Classical Library, Aristotle XIX, translated by H. Rackham, 1926, 1982 p.337, boldface added]

Of course, the "prudent man" is prudent in all things, while it is possible just to be particularly prudent in a specific area, like, as Aristotle says, "health or strength." What is characteristic of prudence is to know and do what is "good and advantageous" (agathà kaì symphéronta -- "useful, expedient, profitable, fitting") for one's self (autô). It is therefore a prudent thing to wear a seatbelt, but a person wearing a seatbelt may not be prudent in any other area, and so may not be a "prudent man" in general. Indeed, seatbelts laws are designed to force prudence upon people who might not otherwise care to take that precaution.

Wisdom for Aristotle, if it is to be the "most perfect [akribestátê, "most accurate, precise, consummate"] of the modes of knowledge [epistêmôn, , "of cognitions," German Erkentnisse, "knowledges"]," is not going to be about human affairs at all, "inasmuch as man is not the best thing [áriston] in the world" [VI, vii, 2-4, p.343]. Thus, we can know about God, but the way God knows things, sub specie aeternitatis, is of no practical significance for us. Aristotle also here uses his notion that "good" does not have a single meaning. This is directed against Plato's theory that the "Form of the Good" is one thing and represents one meaning, beyond all others -- "good is not a general term corresponding to a single idea" [I, vi, 11, p.23]. Thus,

And as "wholesome" [hygieinón, "healthy"] and "good" mean one thing for men and another for fishes, whereas "white" and "straight" mean the same thing always, so everybody would denote the same thing by "wise," but not by "prudent".... [VI, vii, 3-4, p.343]

Aristotle's view of "good" is that it is "That at which all things aim" [I, i, 1, p.3] or "in every pursuit or undertaking it describes the end [télos] of that pursuit or undertaking" [I, vii, 1, p.27]. Since undertakings are many, and ends are various, "good" means many different things. Unfortunately, this gets the causality exactly backwards. To say that something is good because it is the goal of some activity doesn't explain why that activity is worth undertaking, or the goal desirable. Instead, if we ask why the activity is worthwhile, we get the answer that it is because the goal is good. This may not make it any easier to define "good," but it does mean that purposive behavior is based on judgments of value, not the other way around.

While "good" may mean different things for men and for fishes, Aristotle's contrasting examples don't make the right point. As Heraclitus might have said, salt water is healthy for (salt water) fishes, while only fresh water is healthy for us. But these different things can both be good in different objects in the same way that "white" and "straight" can apply to white salt and white clouds, straight arrows and straight rulers. Salt water thus differs from fresh water in no different a way than salt differs from clouds. That different things are good, just as different things are white, does not show that good as such has different meanings.

There is a certain relativity in the meaning of good that we see when we render "good" by saying "good for men" and "good for fishes." Perhaps this is what Aristotle had in mind. But this doesn't really make any difference. We know in each that what is good, even if it is different or concerns different objects, will promote life, health, and well being. But what is healthy facilitates life and function while what is unhealthy causes disease, decline, and death. Thus, what Aristotle says, that "wholesome" or "healthy" is different for men and for fishes, is true only if we look at the healthy thing, the water, or the characteristics of health, like body temperature, in isolation. Salt water for fish, however, and fresh water for men have the same effect and tendency, while a higher body temperature for men and a lower one for fish are both characteristics of unimpaired living.

Now, if the mark of wisdom is that it always means the same thing, while prudence varies, then wisdom, as in Plato but contrary to Aristotle, can still mean knowledge of the good. Since Aristotle himself thought that wisdom would be about the "best" thing in the world, i.e. God, he is not entirely consistent here, since "best" [áriston] is just the superlative of "good" [agathón]. The greatest good would be about the purposes of God, but then, for Aristotle, God is his own purpose. This is what made metaphysics, which was supposed to lead to knowledge of God, First Philosophy.

If, however, metaphysics does not lead to knowledge of God, or if the purposes of God, if there be such, are closed off to human knowledge, then wisdom of the form imagined by Aristotle is not going to be available to us. If "Only the god is wise," then, as Socrates said, human wisdom will be something else.

Aristotle's God, on the other hand, was adapted into the monotheistic religions of the Middle Ages, Judaism, Christianity, and Islâm. In these religions, God's purposes are known, at least in part, through Revelation. Since these purposes involve human affairs, and in fact contain a plan for human redemption and salvation, being familiar with them would be of overriding significance for human life and very much relevant to the content of wisdom. Pharaoh would have been a wiser man to have heeded God sooner (if he had been able). And St. Thomas, therefore, is not going to think that even wisdom concerning the "best" thing in the world is of no practical significance. So Aristotle's inconsistency in using the superlative of "good" is going to widen to a gulf when human life figures in the ends of God.

When Aristotle holds that wisdom is, in human terms, merely theoretical, while prudence is practical wisdom, he leaves out an essential distinction. Prudent action is, as Aristotle says, what is good and advantageous for one's self. What is characteristic of this is the dimension of self-interest. What, then does one call knowledge of what is good and advantageous for human life in general, regardless of self-interest? As a matter of fact, in both Greek and English usage, this would be "wisdom." Aristotle only denies this because he thinks that wisdom, as "the most perfect of the modes of knowledge" is neither about the good, which has many different meanings, nor about human affairs, which are not the "best in the world." Wisdom is disinterested, not because it isn't about the good or human affairs, but because it is about these in general, regardless of the individual self-interest of the wise person. The prudent person may give good advice about matters that affect him, or he may prudently withhold advice from those whom it would be imprudent (for him) to advise; but the wise person can give disinterested advice about both personal and public affairs, and about the very meaning of life. Metaphysics may lead to knowledge, but it is unlikely that this is going to be wisdom, except in so far as knowledge of ultimate reality may affect the meaning of life.

One way to clarify the customary meaning of "wisdom" is by its opposites. To say that something is "unwise" is almost always about some action, pursuit, or arrangement which will be bad or have bad consequences. Driving around on bald tires is unwise. It is also, of course, imprudent. But "unwise," as a privative, implies a mere absence of wisdom. There is a positive opposite of "wisdom" which is most revealing, and that is "folly" (, môría). The person who enjoys playing Russian roulette is not just unwise, not just imprudent, he is a fool (, môrós). But folly is not just an absence of knowledge. It is actions, pursuits, or arrangements that are so stupid and idiotic that "unwise" is far too bloodless and technical a term to be appropriate. This applies to the gravest matters about which humans should know and carefully guide their actions. In religious terms, where the purposes of God are relevant to human affairs, we have the stark statement, as St. Anselm liked to quote [Psalm 14:1], "The fool hath said in his heart, there is no God" [note].

Interestingly, in some traditional usage "wisdom" can have a negative meaning, while "fool" can be relatively positive. A wicked person of great knowledge and cleverness has sometimes been called "wise," while the fool who is so ignorant as to be innocent and blissfully unconcerned about matters of prudence can even be the "fool of God." The sense of wisdom in the service of wickedness seems rather rare now. The potential for such a construction we even see with Socrates, who admitted that the craftsmen "were wiser [sophóteroi] than I" [Apology 22D] -- i.e. they simply knew their craft. This goes back to the basic meaning of "wise" in Greek, sophós, which can have the morally neutral, or negative, meanings of "skilled," "cunning," "shrewd," "clever," or "prudent." But then Socrates concluded that this technical knowledge was not the wisdom mentioned by the god (cutting the meaning down to about where "wise" in now in English). It is unlikely, then, that the "wisdom" of the wicked would qualify either. The possibility that the complete fool is wise in his own way, on the other hand, depends on the judgment that certain kinds of innocence and ignorance, such as that possessed by children, amounts to a positive kind of wisdom. Thus, in Ingmar Bergman's 1957 movie, The Seventh Seal, both the seeker of knowledge (the Knight), the nihilist (the Squire), and all their companions end up dying, while the circus Fool with his wife and child has, wisely as it happens, left the group. While the Knight was never favored by God with knowledge, and the squire simply didn't believe in God, the Fool, who is introduced after having a vision of the Virgin Mary, clearly is favored with an insight at once more meaningful and more practical -- i.e he is much happier than the others and also survives! The Tao Te Ching also says that the sage "will return to being a babe" [XXVIII:63, D.C. Lau translation, Penguin, 1963, p.33]. Whether babe or fool, however such a person may act, like Forrest Gump [in the 1995 movie Forrest Gump], in ways that, often by luck and accident, turn out to be wise and prudent, it is still the case that he is going to be unlikely to give detailed advice in matters of prudence or wisdom. Instead, in his well-meaning way, he has no idea why things happened the way they did -- so an essential element of wisdom, knowledge, is missing.

One reason for the appeal of the idea of the "wise fool" is that many very good people are in fact often very imprudent, even credulous and gullible. This seems unfair -- though it also seemed unfair (at first) to "Lieutenant Dan" in Forrest Gump that a "moron" should end up honored and successful. We have a bit of ambiguity there, since it can be argued that much of Gump's success is the result of simple virtues whose operation is unspectacular but which certainly preserve him from the self-destructiveness evident in his girlfriend, Jenny. Even Forrest, however, could not have prospered the way he did without the advantages of luck and coincidence. Many good people fail miserably or even die prematurely from evils that could not have been anticipated or prevented. What people can think, then, is that goodness, even if clueless in practical terms, must constitute a kind of "higher" prudence. Bad things may happen to good people, but God (or karma) has a reward for the good in Heaven. So even those gullible persons who are helpless targets for human predators turn out to be the genuinely wise, from the perspective of eternity.

However, this will not do. Prudence, just because it is personally advantageous, is not morally praiseworthy. Goodness, like wisdom, is disinterested. Indeed, morality it is always a limitation of self-interest, as Thomas Jefferson said,

Self-love, therefore, is no part of morality. Indeed it is exactly its counterpart. It is the sole antagonist of virtue, leading us constantly by our propensities to self-gratification in violation of our moral duties to others.

Something we find in common in Kant, Confucius, and the Bhagavad Gita is that moral action is done for its own sake, without expectation or desire for a reward for such action. This is not necessarily the case in Christianity, where Jesus speaks frequently of reward, as at Matthew 6:6:

But when you pray, go to your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

This is more consistent with the Greek approach, where, indeed, the Stoics thought that virtue was its own reward, but this also meant, as it did in Plato, that virtue all by itself was sufficient for happiness. This is really not very credible in relation to real life. Older Greek thought was that human life cannot be happy, or at least cannot be counted happy until death removes the possibility of any additional misfortune. If Plato was uneasy with the argument of the Republic that the just man was intrinsically happier, he covered the contradictions of experience with the notion that reward and punishment would be coming, regardless of the events of life, in the afterlife. Christianity simply elaborates this.

Such an approach, however, does reduce goodness to prudence and does mean that loss of religious faith can mean the loss of motive for moral action. The response of the Gita to offers of reward is:

Their soul is warped with selfish desires, and their heaven is a selfish desire. They have prayers for pleasures and power, the reward of which is earthly rebirth. [2:43, Juan Mascaró translation, Penguin, 1962]

Instead, we get the statement of karmayoga:

Set thy heart upon thy work, but never on its reward.
Work not for a reward; but never cease to do thy work. [2:47]

Morality, therefore, is not necessarily prudent, and self-interest may be gravely damaged by moral action. Such action, nevertheless, may be for the sake of righteousness or for the sake of a greater good, a disinterested good, which is known by wisdom rather than mere prudence.

This may become confused if it is not truly disinterested but actually prudent, not in relation to individual self-interest, but in terms of the interest of a group larger than one's self. How much the interest of such a group counts as a kind of self-interest is often a good question. Dying for "my country, right or wrong," may be a self-denying sacrifice of the individual self, but it can be for a moral wrong, if one's country is doing wrong, and the identification of self with country may be so close as to motivate the action as a matter of self-interest. At the very least, wisdom would know the difference between true righteousness and something that would be no more than the self-interest of a group. Nevertheless, political wisdom can actually involve knowing when a people may need, rightfully, to be protected by wrongful actions -- as the Krishna of the Gita teaches elsewhere in the Mahâbhârata.

The ultimate human good is regarded by Aristotle as happiness: "The human good [anthrópon agathón] becomes the activity [enérgeia] of the soul according to virtue [areté]" [I, vii, 15, p.33]. This is qualified in certain ways. There are various virtues, and some are better than others. Better happiness goes with better virtues. And Aristotle has some consciousness of older concerns about how life can go wrong, so happiness is a matter of a lifetime ("One swallow does not make spring"). A brief period does not make one "blessed" (makários). Since the greatest virtue in Aristotle is wisdom, and wisdom is contemplating eternal truths and God, one ends up with the perhaps not surprising conclusion that Aristotle would regard the supreme happiness as a life of philosophy (not unlike his own).

Marcus Aurelius would seem to be the counterexample to this. The man tried hard to be comforted by philosophy, but his grim duties on the frontiers of Rome and the deaths of many in his family from the plague cast a shadow in his life that is all too evident in his attempts to rationalize his misery into happiness. The benefits of contemplation are relatively helpless against the burdens of some virtues, like political responsibility, and the misfortunes of disease and personal loss. It is often thought that wisdom is more likely to make a person unhappy, as the sorrows of the world are ever more evident. So even if Marcus Aurelius could have avoided responsibility, and even family, perhaps he would not have been happy alone with his wisdom -- though evidently some are. The Buddha, at least in Buddhist art, looks happy enough -- and Schopenhauer would say that even this appearance is possible because of the possibility of the real thing. But then, this kind of happiness involves a religious dimension and a very thorough withdrawal from the world. Later Buddhism sometimes expresses the idea that one can be happy with whatever is happening in life, but since this sometimes involved the commission of great moral wrongs, there are serious questions to be asked about it.

Prudence and wisdom can certainly be elements in happiness, since people can definitely be unhappy because of imprudence and folly. With such people, these errors could presumably be corrected. But people can also be happy without either prudence or wisdom -- those are not necessary -- as in the case of the "wise fools" considered above. Nor are prudence and wisdom sufficient for happiness, since prudential actions may nevertheless be ineffective and wisdom may be helpless in the face of catastrophes. Where events beyond our control destroy lives, the reasonable and natural response is, not happiness, but grief and sorrow. Grief and sorrow, nevertheless, may accompany a certain sense that one has done one's duty or done one's best. Does this make that "certain sense" a kind of happiness? No. One would rather not have things be that way, and the emotional pain can be intense. Denying this is perverse.

Thus, with Horatio Nelson's last words, "Thank God, I have done my duty" (after the more intriguing, "Kiss me, Hardy," to his Flag Captain), do we say that he died happy? Did everyone rejoice, that he had gone on to a better life? Perhaps it was a happy death in the sense that he died heroically after having done something magnificent; but there is little doubt that it would have been more enjoyable for him if he had survived, had received the acclaim of the nation, had been able to marry his mistress, Lady Hamilton, had been able to legitimize his daughter by her (who benefited not at all from her parentage), and had lived out his life with the kind of honor and pleasure that we find in the later life of the Duke of Wellington. This kind of loss is a matter of grief and sorrow. The kind of pleasure or satisfaction derived from it is aesthetic, since we contemplate a life that displays a sort of beauty and sublimity. But it is not for its subject the stuff of what would ordinarily be considered happiness -- except in the earliest Greek sense that one can be counted happy only after death. Its beauty and sublimity, indeed, is that of a tragic aesthetic. Did Oedipus become "happy" by his actions and discoveries? No, indeed. We could say he became wiser, and hopefully he would achieve some kind of peace, but his chances for actual happiness were reduced to rubble.

For wisdom, then, the demands can be high, if we expect from wisdom practical guidance in human affairs, personal and political, but the benefits can be meager. Doing what is right, as we see in many moral dilemmas, can produce the worse, even a grievous, outcome, while doing what is beneficial, albeit wrong, can leave permanent scars of guilt. Wisdom and prudence aim at goodness, happiness, success, and prosperity, but they cannot assure them, as wisdom knows all too well. This all seems like a poor recommendation for prudence, goodness, and wisdom. Perhaps so. The alternative, however, hardly bears preference. Something like a hundred million people died in the 20th Century simply because of certain foolish, but at one time reasonable, beliefs about economics and politics. Karl Marx did not mean to promote mass murder (just the elimination of "scum" like capitalists, the bourgeoisie, and Slavs), but that was the effect of his ideas. Yet Marx still has his defenders, who assure us (perhaps insincerely) that next time they will abolish property and private exchange without coercion and terror. Even those who would never dream of explicitly applying Marxist principles, let alone committing the crimes so frequently associated with them, nevertheless promote the sort of protectionist, even mercantilist, economics and politics that still rest, like Marxism, on a denial of Say's Law and other basic principles of economics, like supply and demand. In these terms, wisdom as practical political knowledge of human affairs is still an orphan, often with people whose ideas have been the most harmful and destructive as the most self-righteous, outraged, and militant. Thus, what actually is political wisdom is as much a matter of dispute as ever. Whatever is to be expected from wisdom, the task remains, even as it was for Socrates and Plato, to identify what it actually is. Meanwhile, if we have grief and sorrow and little enough happiness, what can we do? The best thing that can be done, if nothing else, in the face of folly:  laughter.

I understand that Horace Walpole (1717-1797) said that life is a tragedy to the man who feels and a comedy to the man who thinks. What if one both feels and thinks? What do we get then? Tragicomedy? That is much what life is like. As Schopenhauer says,

The life of every individual, viewed as a whole and in general, and when only its most significant features are emphasized, is really a tragedy; but gone through in detail it has the character of a comedy. For the doings and worries of the day, the restless mockeries of the moment, the desires and fears of the week, the mishaps of every hour, are all brought about by chance that is always bent on some mischievous trick; they are nothing but scenes from a comedy. The never-fulfilled wishes, the frustrated efforts, the hopes mercilessly blighted by fate, the unfortunate mistakes of the whole life, with increasing suffering and death at the end, always give us a tragedy. Thus, as if fate wishes to add mockery to the misery of our existence, our life must contain all the woes of tragedy, and yet we cannot even assert the dignity of tragic characters, but, in the broad detail of life, are inevitably the foolish characters of a comedy. [Arthur Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Representation, Volume I, §58, E.F.J. Payne translation, Dover Publications, 1958, p.322]

Every great tragedy has its comic relief, which can even be of the most absurd and pratfall character. Rarer is the tragedy where the comedy is intrinsic to the content and the action. Catch 22 and M.A.S.H. (both books and movies for each) come to mind. Both of these, not accidentally, are about war, which is perhaps the most tragic and horrible of human events, but whose frequent absurdity in detail, or in general, is always ripe material for farce. Simply to survive the horror, without becoming catatonic, the comedy may be necessary. Catch 22 and M.A.S.H. are usually thought of as comedies, but describing their contents without recounting the individual jokes can well leave the auditor appalled rather than amused. "Black comedy" may be the category.

If life is a black comedy, how can we reconcile the horribly tragic and ludicrously comic aspects? The plain truth is that we cannot. The truth of either cannot be denied. Schopenhauer and the religions he esteems, like Hinduism, Buddhism, and Christianity, all take the horror the most seriously and explore the consequences. That this can amount to a positive denial of life may be disturbing, but it is no more than fitting given the logic of the insight. However, we notice that Schopenhauer, and the religiously serious, don't seem to do much laughing -- at some times and places, for moral, political, and religious reasons, laughter has been made virtually illegal. Laughter punctures the seriousness. If people are enjoying life, enjoying the moment, we expect to hear them laughing, even if nothing particularly funny seems to be happening or getting recounted -- though this is not uncommon either. Nietzsche, whose gods and wisdom are laughing, can be said to have appreciated this side of life. Nietzsche, however, who appreciated how the Apollonian aesethetic protects us from the horror of existence, failed to appreciate how morality was also a protection and how the sensibility of Schopenhauer or Christianity was fundamentally addressed to the origin of the horror. The danger of Nietzsche's moral aestheticism is that the horror is simply allowed, accepted, and embraced. This is not what humor does. The comic aspect protects us, but it doesn't make the evils of life desirable, except to monsters (whom Nietzsche apparently esteemed).

The result is a kind of antinomy. Life is terrible and funny. We don't want it to be terrible just because it is funny. Even good things can be funny, like sex -- perhaps in part because sex itself is serious, but also absurd. So we would rather be able to laugh about something like that, rather than about Chevy Chase falling down on Saturday Night Live (always funny, but also resulting in injury and years of pain for Chevy -- he is a lot less funny now). Laughter seems to be a clue to something better than the common misadventures of real life, but whatever is better either doesn't exist or is concealed from our knowledge -- the idea that the "something better" can actually be produced by extremely rigorous political action, whether through revolutionary Marxism or revolutionary Islâm, has typically produced some of the finest examples of terror and oppression on record. As Agent Smith says in The Matrix, humans cannot tolerate life without suffering. Schopenhauer says that happiness cannot be conceived except as an absence of suffering. This is not entirely true, but it is also true that conceptions of perfect happiness often produce visions that seem insipid or boring -- indeed, laughably absurd. We know the satisfaction of struggling against adversity. We also know about failure and grief in the face of overwhelming misfortune. What would redeem and explain all this is what we are lacking, but to which the promises of religion, whether the Eleusian Mysteries or various Redeemers, Buddhas, and Avatars, are directed. Laughter, therefore, helps sustain us, and visibly demonstrates when life is enjoyable, but it doesn't explain anything.

From Knowledge to Wisdom by Nick Maxwell,
Emeritus Reader in Philosophy of Science at University College London

The Morality of Laughter, by F.H. Buckley, University of Michigan Press, 2003


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Prudence, Goodness, and Wisdom, Note 1

This memorable quote about God giving Solomon his wisdom shows some historic uncertainty about how to translate two terms used in Hebrew into Greek and Latin. The two key words in Hebrew are , chokhmâh, and , tebhûnâh. The former (which is cognate to Arabic , h.ikmah) is defined by Ben-Yehuda as "intelligence, science, wisdom," and the latter as "understanding, intelligence."

The Latin translation of these words in the Vulgate (by St. Jerome in the 5th century) is sapientia, "wisdom," and prudentia, "prudence," respectively. However, the principal meaning of "prudence" is not really "understanding" or "intelligence." It is, as I examine on this page, a kind of wisdom, "practical" wisdom. There is therefore a certain liberty taken in Jerome's translation, to suppose that God is giving Solomon two kinds of wisdom, not wisdom and, in general, understanding. Even this move is obscured, however, when we look back at the earlier Greek translation (in Alexandria of the 3rd century BC) of the Septuagint. There we get the Greek terms for "wisdom," , and "prudence," , traditionally corresponding to the Latin words; but the order in which they are used is reversed!

So translates and translates . This may (1) bespeak a certain fluidity in the meaning of the Greek terms. Or (2), the translators, for whom Greek was probably their second language, may have been a little vague about the meaning. Or (3), as "practical wisdom" can just have been taken as "wisdom," while , which after all in Aristotle is a theoretical knowledge of the universe, can have sounded more like "understanding, intelligence" apart from any practical application. So St. Jerome was faced with diverging ranges of meaning between the Hebrew text and the Greek text. What it may come down to is whether we agree with Aristotle (as I won't) that is theoretical and not, as Plato had thought, practical -- an issue that is raised by the Greek text but may be unrelated to the meanings in Hebrew.

The original Greek version might have done better to translate as , noûs, which is "mind, perception, sense" and had already been used by Heraclitus to mean "intelligence." If God had given Solomon "wisdom" and "mind," the issue would not have arisen of the relationship between wisdom and prudence.

"Knowing" Words In Indo-European Languages

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Prudence, Goodness, and Wisdom, Note 2

Lee and Smith remark that the character they translate as "wise," , now means no more than "knowledge," while a new character, , has taken over the more elevated semantic range [The Pocket Confucius, Museworks, Hong Kong, 2010, p.16]. We see both characters as Chinese virtues. As often in Chinese, a change in tone can change the meaning. (4th tone) is the noun, "wisdom" or "knowledge," while (1st tone), is the verb, "to know." Mathews' Chinese Dictionary [Harvard, 1972] glosses as "used in the classics for , the next" [chih, character #932 and #933]. Chinese, however, does not clearly distinguish wisdom (sapientia) from prudence (prudentia); and does duty for both.

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Prudence, Goodness, and Wisdom, Note 3

Dixit insipiens in corde suo non est Deus.
The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God.

Psalm 14:1, Greek text, Psalm 13 in the Septuagint

As far as I know, Plato, who writes so much about wisdom, does not discuss or even use terms for "fool" or "folly." Môría and môrós are used by St. Paul, as we see in the epigraphs to this page. In Latin, these were translated stultitia and stultus, respectively. It may be of interest to note that in J.R.R. Tolkien's The Fellowship of the Ring, the wizard Gandalf is reluctant to enter the "Mines of Moria," which, indeed, appear to symbolize and embody folly and disaster. Matthew 7:24 and 7:26 contrast a man who is , phrónimos, "wise, prudent" (like ) with one who is , môrós, which we have seen.

If Anselm was looking at the Greek text of the Psalms, he would have seen another word for "fool," namely , áphrôn. This is from the same root, again, as , with an alpha privative, and morphemicly might be translated "senseless." It also gets us another word for "folly," , aphrosúnê. The Latin translation of Psalms 14:1 uses insipiens for "fool" -- Dixit insipiens in corde suo non est Deus [Psalm 13:1 in the Vulgate].

The full Greek text of Psalm 14:1 is The Latin translation follows the Greek text word for word but leaves out what is the equivalent of the colon in the punctuation. As in the Vulgate, the Greek text is Psalm 13 in the Septuagint, the Hellenistic translation of the Bible into Greek. This inspired Anselm's proof of the existence of God.

In the Hebrew text of the Bible, the word translated "fool" is , nâbhâl. The Interlinear NIV Hebrew-English Old Testament [John R. Kohlenberger III, Zondervan Publishing House, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1979, 1987], translates nâbhâl as "fool" in the text, but then there is a footnote that says, "The Hebrew words rendered fool in Psalms denote one who is morally deficient" [p.358].

This gets stronger in Ben-Yehuda's Pocket English-Hebrew Hebrew-English Dictionary [Ehud Ben-Yehuda & David Weinstein, Washington Square Press, 1961, 1966], where the entry for nâbhâl says, "churl, ignoble (vile) person, villainous man" [p.194]. The drift of the meaning there is actually more consistent with the rest of verse 1 in Psalm 14:  "They are corrupt, their deeds are vile; there is no one who does good." Indeed, "There is no one who does good," 'Ên 'ôshêh tôbh, is one of the grimmest and starkest assertions in the Bible. The one who denies that God exists thus is said not just to be a fool, not just to be confused, but morally to be wicked.

In the Apology of Socrates, Socrates apparently uses "ignorance" as the opposite of "wisdom."

After examining the craftsmen, whom he allows have a kind of wisdom and knowledge, Socrates says, according to G.M.A. Grube, that it is better for him to have "...neither their wisdom nor their ignorance..." [Plato, Five Dialogues, Hackett, 1981, p.28].

However, the Grube translation leaves out parts of this passage, which is given in Greek by the Loeb Classical Library as, [22e, Loeb Classical Library, Harvard, 1914, 1966, p.86]. The translation, by Harold North Fowler, says, "neither wise in their wisdom nor foolish in their folly" [p.87]. This has the double use of and contrasted with and that we see in Greek.

The Loeb translation, however, takes liberties by saying "foolish in their folly." This is because means "ignorance" rather than "folly." It should be, "ignorant in their ignorance." Harold North Fowler, obviously wants the semantic opposite of "wisdom" in "folly," rather than what Socrates actually says.

As I have said above, I don't think Socrates or Plato uses a Greek word for folly, like or . This is of interest in its own right. Aristotle, as we have seen, might take the opposite of as ; and we would not see a clear contradiction of this here with Socrates.

Indeed, Socrates is talking about knowledge, but the knowledge in question is of the kind of wisdom that concerns Socrates, which is the "human and social kind of excellence," , . This involves a practical aspect to wisdom, rejected by Aristotle, where the opposite is not just ignorance. Since Socrates believes that "virtue is knowledge," it is not that surprising that his expressions would contrast ignorance with wisdom.

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The Morality of Laughter

by F.H. Buckley

University of Michigan Press, 2003

Christ is crucified and dost thou laugh?

St. John Chrysostom, Homily XVII

A fool lifteth up his voice with laughter;
but a wise man doth scarce smile a little.

Ecclesiasticus (Sirah) 21:20 [King James, inconsistent with text of Vulgate]

Lord Chesterfield thought it acceptable to be seen to smile,
but not to laugh:  for laughter 'is the manner in which the mob express their silly joy at silly things; and they call it being merry'.

Vic Gatrell, The First Bohemians, Life and Art in London's Golden Age
[Allen Lane, Penguin, 2013, p.314]

...the heritage of Soviet Communism, of 75 years of murder, useless suffering, and general gloom, produced little of value except perhaps a dozen good jokes. A characteristic one is about the man who goes into a Soviet car dealership to learn there is only one model of car for sale, that this model has no extra features, comes in only one color, and cannot be delivered for 10 years. The man says that he'll take it but would prefer to have it delivered in the afternoon 10 years from today. When the car salesman asks why in the afternoon, the man says that he has the plumber coming in the morning.

Joseph Epstein, "Notes on What's So Damn Funny,"
Commentary, September 2014 [p.62]

For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbours, and laugh at them in our turn?

Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen,
Statement by Mr. Bennet to his daughter Elizabeth [Penguin, 1986, p.372]

I am happier even than Jane; she only smiles, I laugh.

Statement by Elizabeth Bennet to her aunt [ibid., p.390]

Only a man with a heart of stone could read of the death of Little Nell without laughing.

Oscar Wilde, referring to Little Nell Trent
in The Old Curiosity Shop by Charles Dickens.

F.H. Buckley's examination of laughter and its moral associations is an illuminating and valuable study, but perhaps not as revealing or definitive as I would like. Its greatest drawback may be Buckley's reliance on Hobbes and Nietzsche -- on Hobbes for his basic "superiority" thesis, and on Nietzsche for the precedent of the "gay science." But morally each of them provides a dangerous and deceptive precedent.

Buckley states the "superiority" thesis with quotations from Hobbes:

"Power simply is no more, but the excess of power of one above that of another." Possessing power over others is glory, and the sudden realization of that power produces laughter. It is a "sudden glory," a cry of triumph that signals our discovery of superiority to a butt, "and is caused either by some sudden act of their own, that pleaseth them; or by the apprehension of some deformed thing in another, by comparison whereof they suddenly applaud themselves." [p.7-8]

This notion is certainly going to be conformable to Nietzsche's views about power, triumph, and superiority, but a basic problem with it is that its laughter is a cruel laughter. A laughter of triumph over the overpowered or at a deformity in another is cruel. Buckley is aware that "vicious" laughter is a problem, and he is aware that Nietzsche appreciates the role of cruelty in laughter. But then Nietzsche is going to see cruelty as essential to laughter, as it is essential to all real life and joy, since life and joy involve a triumph over others that involves killing and even torturing them (a Darwinian triumph). Buckley begins a chapter (5, "Comic Virtues and Vices") by addressing the issue of "vicious laughter," but he does not end up with any clear answer about it. Since Buckley appreciates the essence of joy in laughter, he must answer the Nietzschean challenge that cruelty is essential to life and joy, and so to laughter.

Many people have had the experience of teasing a friend for some mannerism, peculiarity, or faux pas and discovering, to their surprise and grief, that the friend is genuinely hurt by the teasing [note]. Although teasing can be intentionally cruel, it can be playful and good humored, whether with friends or not. Where it is misunderstood, the teasing can turn to serious concern, compassion, and reassurance for the victim. The playfulness drops away, though it may return if the reassurances are well taken and the playful context restored. Cruelty, therefore, is not essential to laughter, as laughter is not essential to cruelty. Cruel laughter involves a spectrum. As laughter becomes more cruel, it becomes less playful and more serious. Just as sex may begin with play and laughter and end with serious consummation, cruelty may begin in a relatively playful way but end with the most grim and cold acts of murder, mutilation, etc.

A counterexample for the superiority thesis is the common entertainment value of impersonations and impressions. In the movie The Dead Poets Society [1989], comic Robin Williams does an impression of John Wayne doing a passage of Shakespeare. Personally, I find this hilarious, as I do most such impressions. Now, the butt of such an impression is certainly the person being imitated, in this case John Wayne. Although impressions can be mocking and disparaging, that is not at all the sense in this case. People who love John Wayne and everything about him, can enjoy what Robin Williams does. So why is it funny? What is the attitude toward John Wayne? What has this got to do with "superiority" or power?

As with good humored teasing, celebrity impressions are largely going to be affectionate. One thing an impression will do is exaggerate and emphasize characteristics, mannerisms and habits, that otherwise people might not even be away of -- just as is done in cartoon caricatures of people. John Wayne's manner and mannerisms are subtle enough that people could watch many of his movies without being explicitly all that aware of them. Part of the delight of impressions, then, is to show us, by exaggeration, what we are already able to recognize as characteristic of that person. It is the recognition of what is familiar that is so delightful, but it is still mysterious why it is funny.

Another problem with the superiority thesis is comedians whose act is basically to mock themselves. Steve Martin's standup routine was to act like a jerk, and his first movie was even called The Jerk [1979]. A less sophisticated version is the pratfall antics of the Three Stooges, who were not only always acting like idiots, but even rather nasty idiots. We even get a bit of this with the Marx Brothers, who often mock other people, but who are also pretty strange, and not entirely honest, themselves. A more subtle case was in Woody Allen's first movie, Take the Money and Run [1969]. Allen is in prison and is being visited by his wife. The scene plays in a straightforward way in the foreground, but then one notices that in the background there is another prisoner and visitor. They are both holding puppets, and the puppets are doing the talking to each other. The first time I saw that, I thought I was going to fall out of my seat, it seemed so funny. Much of the humor seems to come from the off-the-wall nature of the situation, as though the gag begins with a question, "What would happen if a ventriloquist, from a family of ventriloquists, ended up in jail?" Perhaps this mocks ventriloquists, but then there is no particular reason to do that, and no particular superiority that one has over a ventriloquist, except that the practice seems odd.

Part of the superiority thesis seems to be true. When Michael Valentine Smith is trying to understand laughter in Robert Heinlein's classic science fiction novel Stranger in a Strange Land, he first says, "I grok [i.e. perceive or understand] wrongness." This is conformable with some other authorities cited by Buckley, with Aristotle saying that comedy is about what is ugly, or Plato that it is about malice or misfortune. What all of these have in common is a defect; but the defects can be of different kinds. If laughter is about deformity or misfortune, it is most likely to be cruel. If laughter is about some moral error or folly, then laughter is less likely to be cruel than it is to be critical and corrective of moral, prudential, or logical defects (logical defects or paradoxes make it possible to subsume Kant's "incongruity" thesis of laughter into the matter [note]). This is the kind of laughter most elaborated by Buckley, contributing the greatest part to Buckley's larger thesis of the "morality of laughter." A third kind of laughter, however, can be about a peculiarity that is not precisely a defect but is recognizable as a deviation from a norm. Absolutely anyone can be teased about their mannerisms. The teasing can be cruel where the intention is hostile or cruel, but it can be affectionate where the intention is friendly, affectionate, or playful. John Wayne's mannerisms simply make John Wayne John Wayne. Robin Williams doing John Wayne presents the incongruous spectacle of a John Wayne who actually isn't John Wayne, but who seems like him. If you already like John Wayne, this invokes the happiest of memories and associations, from which we laugh in delight. On the other hand, Dan Ackroyd doing Richard Nixon (on the old Saturday Night Live) may provoke laughter of a different sort, a cruel and mocking laughter, in which the exaggerated characteristics are those associated with (presumed) moral defect and folly. It is in hostile caricatures and impressions that moral defect may even be represented as physical defect and deformity. Shakespeare made Richard III a hunchback to make fun of him, although the serious accusation was that he was a tyrant and murderer.

Laughter directed at a defect thus derives its character from the nature of the defect, and it represents superiority only in so far as we think ourselves, at least for the moment, above the defect. The superiority thesis will involve power, as Hobbes and Nietzsche thought, only where the defect involves power, as the victim is overpowered, dominated, mocked, raped, tortured, or killed. Such a "defect" in the victim, however, reflects moral ill on the "superior" person, the victor. The superiority thesis will not involve power where the defect is itself a moral one; and, as Buckley thinks, laughter is a form of moral criticism and moral correction -- which he develops at length with a list of Aristotelian "comic virtues and vices." This is why the powerful, in fact, don't usually much like to be laughed at, and their revenge may even be a violent and cruel one, whether grim and serious in the extreme, or accompanied by the laughter of Nietzschean cruelty. The powerful, of course, are not being laughed at for being overpowered, which they are not, but as moral criticism. As it happens, even when laughter, in the past, was often directed at deformed or afflicted individuals, most people were comfortable with such laughter because it was widely believed, from Europe to Japan, that deformities and misfortunes were the result of moral failings and divine (or karmic) punishment.

Like any moral judgment, laughter as moral criticism may err through moral confusion. People merely perceived as hostile or undesirable may be thought of as morally unworthy or defective, when really they are like anyone else. Jokes told about rivals or enemies are often the same jokes told about any such group. At the University of Texas, jokes are told about "Aggies," i.e. rivals at Texas A&M University. Aggies even end up telling the jokes about themselves. "Stupid Irish" jokes are told in Britain, though I heard one from an Irish comedian on St. Patrick's Day in Los Angeles. In Hawaii, there are Filipino jokes. Jews tell "Polack" jokes, about Poles. Etc. Etc. I had a Finnish professor once who kept telling jokes about Swedes. The butts of all such jokes are people doing stupid, foolish, or inappropriate, absurd things. The point seems to be that our rivals/enemies are stupid and clumsy. The conceit is of a moral superiority that is also a physical and mental one. The more cruel and contemptuous such jokes are, however, as with Nietzschean superiority, the more they morally reflect ill on the joker. [note]

What Buckley calls his "normative" thesis, that laughter reflects true moral superiority, thus seems to fail. True moral superiority will depend on true morality, and laughter only depends on what is the actual moral level of the joker and the audience. Cruel jokers produce cruel laughter; ignorant and foolish jokers produce ignorant and foolish laughter; and wise and perceptive jokers produce wise and perceptive laughter. The Clouds, the comedy of Aristophanes making fun of philosophers, thus inappropriately identified Socrates as the butt of its criticism. The mockery, however, which some philosophers and Sophists may have merited, had nothing to do with Socrates, whose actual views Aristophanes may or may not have known. One result was to contribute towards the prosecution, condemnation, and execution of Socrates. There was nothing funny about that, except the irony that Socrates may have welcomed such an end. The last laugh, certainly, was Socrates'.

What Buckley never seems to get into is the thesis discussed above, that laughter protects us from the pain of life, which is Heinlein's own thesis in Stranger in a Strange Land, and which is rather like Nietzsche's thesis about Apollonian art and beauty in The Birth of Tragedy. Otherwise, why then would laughter be about defects, whether cruel, moral, or affectionate? In defects, something has gone wrong, or at least reflects a peculiarity (like John Wayne's mannerisms, or the practice of ventriloquism). Real pain, suffering, and disaster are not very funny; but such things get defused, denatured, and transformed in comedy. If we can really laugh at things that might otherwise be horrible, then maybe life isn't so bad after all. The recent Jackass, the Movie [2002] has a bunch of characters doing truly idiotic, dangerous, and asinine things. They make fun of some other people, but they are really the butt of their own jokes, since a viewer can only think, "What idiots!" Much of it is genuinely funny, but it would not be if anyone was actually getting hurt, or at least was perceived as getting hurt. That physical comedians do get hurt, as noted above with Chevy Chase, is something they try to conceal (or it would ruin the fun), accepted as the cost of their craft.

When something truly terrible has happened, and we are grieving or in pain, the point comes when someone is going to try and get us to laugh again. If they succeed, we usually end up feeling better. Life is returning to normal, and we can enjoy things again, with the pain put at a distance that no longer threatens. And enjoying life usually means laughter. Buckley understands the coincidence of laughter and joy. Grim and humorless people appear unhappy and miserable. Anhedonic moralism does not laugh, and reacts ferociously against being laughed at. Religion is often conflicted about this, since religions want to promise happiness but may view actual laughter as frivolous. Buckley quotes (but misspells) St. John Chrysostom ("Golden Mouth," for his oratory as Patriarch of Constantinople, 398-404), "Christ is crucified and dost thou laugh?" But then Christianity, both at Christmas and at Easter, makes a point of rejoicing. That Christ is risen, after being crucified, may bring a laughter of joy, in which an enemy has indeed been overpowered and defeated, but the enemy is simply death itself. Since this is the removal of the greatest defect in life, laughter would be in order.

Laughter is the mechanism by which joy protects itself, by a comic reversal, from the evils of life -- deformities, wrongs, misfortunes, or paradoxes. This cannot be done with all evils, as it cannot be done with all pleasures. At some point an evil or a wrong becomes threatening enough that fear or anger become appropriate responses, and serious action must be taken. Similarly, sexual play and laughter give way to the seriousness of passion and intercourse. Laughter in the middle of that is a bad sign, but it again becomes appropriate when sexual congress is over. The real superiority of laughter is thus when the superiority is of what is sound, healthy, thriving, straight, and true.

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The Morality of Laughter, Note 1,

in valle lacrimarum,
"Through the Valley of Bakha (Weeping),"
"In the Vale of Tears."

Psalms 84:6 [83:7 in the Septuagint & Vulgate]

Whether the dogma obtain, Mâlunkyâputta, that the world is eternal, or that the world is not eternal, there still remain old age, death, sorrow, lamentation, misery, grief, and despair, for the extinction of which in the present life I am prescribing.

Majjhima-Nikâya, Sutta 63, Buddhism in Translations, Henry Clarke Warren, §13, "Questions which tend not to Edification," 1896, 1953, Cosimo, Inc., 2005, p.121

Always she [Anna Comnena] dwelt with poetry, mourned with the tragedians and played with the comedians, enlivening again with these relaxations the toil from the other philosophy, for while laughing with some matters but mourning and deeming others unhappy, she both praised the laughter of [the cheerful philosopher] Democritus while honoring no less the tears of [the melancholy philosopher] Heraclitus

George Tornikes, Funeral Oration for Anna Comnena (1083-1153/4), quoted by Leonora Neville, Anna Komnene, the Life & Work of a Medieval Historian, Oxford, 2016, p.123; reference to primary source, Jean Darrouzes, George et Demetrios Tornikes, Lettres et Discours, Paris, éditions du Centre national de la recherche scienitifique, 1970.

Democritus et Heraclitus ont esté deux philosophes, desquels le premier, trouvant vaine et ridicule l'humaine condition, ne sortoit en publicque qu'avecques un visage mocqueur et riant; Heraclitus, ayant pitié et compassion de cette mesme condition nostre, en protoit le visage continuellement triste, et les yeulx chargez de larmes:

Ridebat, quoties a limine moverat unum
Protuleratque pedem; flebat contrarius alter.

[One, whenever he put a foot over his doorstep,
was laughing: the other, on the contarry, wept]

Democritus and Heraclitus were both philosophers; the former, finding our human circumstances so vain and ridiculous, never went out without a laughing and mocking look on his face: Heraclitus, feeling pity and compassion for these same circumstances of ours, wore an expression which was always sad, his eyes full of tears.

Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592), The Complete Essays, I:50, "On Democritus and Heraclitus," Penguin Classics, 1991, 2003, p.339; French text, Essais, Tome II, Chez Lefèvre, Libraire, à Paris, 1826, Nabu Public Domain Reprints, p.258, 16th century spelling, e.g. mesme for même; Juvenal, Satires, X, xxviii.

I have often said, and oftener think, that this world is a comedy to those that think, a tragedy to those that feel -- a solution of why Democritus laughed and Heraclitus wept.

Horace Walpole (1717-1797), letter to Sir Horace Mann

Miranda                                 I am a fool
     To weep at what I am glad of.

The Tempest, William Shakespeare, Act 3, Scene 1:73-74

The revelation of hurt may be expressed in a startling phenomenon, when we see someone "burst into tears" -- something that can happen as an immediate response to something that is said, even when no intention to hurt is present and the cause of the distress may be some circumstance that is unknown to the speaker.

As the counterpoint of laughter may be said to be tears, this is a matter that calls for some consideration. And as crying is often taken to represent weakness, it may stand in perfect opposition to laughter, if laughter is understood to signify power, strength, and domination. Indeed, it is not uncommon for people being laughed at to cry.

Schopenhauer has a brief discussion of weeping, with more attention to the role of suffering and pain that to weakness:

This is also the place to discuss one of the most striking peculiarities of human nature, weeping, which, like laughter, belongs to the manifestations that distinguish man from the animal. Weeping is by no means a positive manifestation of pain, for it occurs where pains are least. In my opinion, we never weep directly over pain that is felt, but always only over its repetition in reflection. Thus we pass from the felt pain, even when it is physical, to a mere mental picture or representation of it; we then find our own state so deserving of sympathy that, if another were the sufferer, we are firmly and sincerely convinced that we would be full of sympathy and love to help him. Now we ourselves are the object of our own sincere sympathy; with the most charitable disposition, we ourselves are most in need of help. We feel that we endure more than we could see another endure, and in this peculiarly involved frame of mind, in which the directly felt suffering comes to perception only in a doubly indirect way, pictured as the suffering of another and sympathized with as such, and then suddenly perceived again as directly our own; in such a frame of mind nature finds relief through that curious physical convulsion. Accordingly, weeping is sympathy with ourselves, or sympathy thrown back to its starting-point. It is therefore conditioned by the capacity for affection and sympathy, and by the imagination. Therefore people who are either hard-hearted or without imagination do not readily weep; indeed weeping is always regarded as a sign of a certain degree of goodness of character, and it disarms anger. This is because it is felt that whoever is still able to weep must also necessarily be capable of affection, i.e., of sympathy towards others, for this enters in the way described into that mood that leads to weeping...

What has been said is also confirmed by the fact that children who have been hurt generally cry only when they are pitied, and hence not on account of the pain, but on account of the conception of it. That we are moved to tears not by own own sufferings, but by those of others, happens in the following way; either in imagination we put ourselves vividly in the sufferer's place, or we see in his fate the lot of the whole of humanity, and consequently above all our own fate. Thus in a very roundabout way, we always weep about ourselves; we feel sympathy with ourselves. This seems also to be a main reason for the universal, and hence natural, weeping in cases of death. It is not the mourner's loss over when he weeps; he would be ashamed of such egoistical tears, instead of sometimes being ashamed of not weeping. In the first place, of course, he weeps over the fate of the deceased; yet he weeps also when for the deceased death was a desirable deliverance after long, grave, and incurable sufferings. In the main, therefore, he is seized with sympathy over the lot of the whole of mankind that is given over to finiteness. In consequence of this, every life, however ambitious and often rich in deeds, must become extinct and nothing. In this lot of mankind, however, the mourner sees first of all his own lot, and this the more, the more closely he was related to the deceased, and most of all therefore when the deceased was his father. Although to this father life was a misery through age and sickness, and through his helplessness a heavy burden to the son, the son nevertheless weeps bitterly over the death of his father for the reason already stated. [The World as Will and Representation, Volume I, §67, pp.377-378, Dover Publications, 1966, E.F.J. Payne translation, boldface added]

To Schopenhauer's great credit, there is nothing here that would correspond to Hobbes' "superiority" thesis about laughter. Indeed, we suspect that those who would weep at suffering would be protected from the cruel laughter at the suffering of others that seems paradigmatic for Hobbes and Nietzsche. Instead, the connections that Schopenhauer sees are with pain and sympathy.

Nevertheless, Schopenhauer's analysis seems to get off on the wrong foot. Children cry when they are in pain, the younger, the more spontaneously. This is how parents know that an infant or toddler is hurt, hungry, or otherwise distressed. We might even see this as a peculiarly human adaptation to communicate such conditions -- a dangerous one, since crying children may bring danger from predators, as today crying children may be the bane of others in restaurants, movie theaters, and airliners. The chicks in the nest who chirp in hunger with their beaks gaping open fall instantly silent when the parent leaves. They are vulnerable enough to predators without advertising their location. But we do not see this specific behavior in birds as weeping, which in humans is non-specific enough that parents often must guess whether hunger or some other discomfort is behind it. Higher mammals may whimper, which in humans can be a precursor to tears, and it also is similarly non-specific -- Fido may be hurt, hungry, lonely, or afraid -- but Fido does not burst into tears.

However, Schopenhauer is onto something in distinguishing weeping from pain, for these do become separate phenomena as humans become older. With maturation, tears become, not the reflex of pain, but of emotion -- principally emotions such as hurt, sorrow, grief, pity, etc. Schopenhauer thinks this ultimately reflects sympathy for ourselves, but I see no reason why it should be so convoluted. People can break down in tears, which is why weeping is associated with weakness. They are overwhelmed by emotion, and thus they elicit the same sympathy and concern from others (at least the non-cruel others) as with anyone who obviously has suffered some physical accident, wound, disease, etc. When someone collapses in tears, something has cut them to the quick, and we may be disarmed if this has resulted from some argument or some hard words we have said. At the same time, being overwhelmed even by good emotions can be manifested with tears. People cry at weddings, or at the reunion of long lost friends and relatives. The latter may involve the shadow of evils, if people have been actually lost, kidnapped, etc.; but it is hard to find the evil in the former, unless it is the separation and loss of, usually, a daughter leaving her previous family. Yet the sense I get is that the transaction of marriage itself can evoke tears, just for its magnitude as a life event. We know that the most intense joy may involve laughter becoming mixed with tears, or entirely replaced by them.

I am forced to confess a moment that may seem to betray an embarrassing weakness. Many years ago, I happened to hear Cheryl Ladd sing the Star Spangled Banner at a Superbowl game. Such a thing had never happened to me before, but her performance moved me to tears. I did not realize that I felt that way about the Star Spangled Banner. Like many children of the Sixties, somehow I grew up with a strong dose of contempt for patriotism (if not for football, Superbowls, T&A stars, etc.). This did not come from my parents, and at that time there had actually been little of that in any overt way in the schools, so I do wonder where it came from. This episode clued me in that my feelings about the matter were definitely changing. By now, of course, this contempt has become quite general, to the point where we hear the story of the mother who told her daughter not to display the American flag after 9/11 because such jingoism was as bad, or worse, than the Terrorists.

Weeping, then, is the ultimate manifestation of emotion at the most moving junctures of life. This may be why women are generally believed to cry more than men, since, as Jung sees it, women are more aware of their emotions and better able to express them. Or, the misogynist or Nietzschean may imagine that it is just because women are weak. While women weeping may be dismissed as a gender stereotype, everyone may consider on their own whether a quarter-century of "consciousness raising" has rendered the typical young American male any less callous, more sensitive, or more emotional than previously. At least from hearsay, I might wonder if in fact the opposite has been the case, and traditional manners and polite address have been replaced by crude "authenticity." At the same time, we know that even the strongest men can be moved to tears, as when Ulysses S. Grant wept after the battle of the Wilderness. Both men and women know that at times of the most terrible challenge, one must not be undone by tears. In those terms, if it was the traditional job of men to protect women, this may mean it was more important, evolutionarily, for them to suppress emotion in order to act.

In the context of Schopenhauer's overall philosophy, the world is, as the Buddha said, a place of "old age, death, sorrow, lamentation, misery, grief, and despair." Life is a "vale of tears," and things like sorrow, lamentation, and grief certainly call for them.
Lacrimosa dies illa,
Qua resurget ex favilla
Judicandus homo reus.

Huic ergo parce, Deus:
Pie Jesu Domine,
Dona eis requiem.

Tearful that day,
As from the ashes returns
Accused man to be judged.

Therefore God spare him:
Merciful Jesus Lord,
Give them rest.

Weeping may thus be the most appropriate thing that we do as a general response to life; and even its association with the greatest moments of joy -- birth, love, marriage -- may derive their poignancy from the shadow of the most terrible and inevitable -- death. We are all ultimately weak, and helpless, as our bodies and minds decay and our days come to an end, often in squalor and misery. I wonder if even the tears of joy reflect an awareness of the transiency of the moment, as when lovers in their early days, after the pleasure of the most intimate moments, or on reflection of love at long last found, may weep. I have not been immune to such reactions to love myself. Indeed, I wonder what is more tragic:  young love lost, or love the most durable and deep -- for even the latter comes to loss, the greatest of all.

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The Skin I Live In (La piel que habito), 2011


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The Morality of Laughter, Note 2

The best evidence for Kant's "incongruity" thesis is that much humor, and jokes in particular, require recognition. A joke is something that you have to "get," that must be understood. What is then recognized is some paradox or unexpected connection. The joke can be explained to someone who doesn't "get" it, but this is always regarded as ruining the joke. If you have to explain it, it isn't funny. Since jokes can require particular bits of shared knowledge or assumptions, jokes can become "in jokes," only to be understood by a certain (favored) group. Someone who doesn't "get" the joke is therefore out of the group.

Some examples might be taken from the popular "lightbulb" jokes. For instance:  How many Zen monks does it take to screw in a lightbulb? Two, one to screw it in, the other not to screw it in. This presupposes some familiarity with the Taoist and Zen doctrine of "not doing." There are ethnic and regional versions of such jokes. For instance:  How many New Yorkers does it take to screw in a light bulb? Who the fuck wants to know! This presupposes the knowledge of the stereotype that New Yorkers are rather hostile. Indeed, my wife and I were on the Boardwalk at Coney Island once. She was taking my picture, and a tiny old lady behind me, with a walker, shouted out, "If you take my picture, I'll break your God damn camera!" If she had picked up her walker and clobbered me, Woody Allen couldn't have done it any better. Another joke goes like this:  How many Californians does it take to screw in a lightbulb? None, Californians don't screw in lightbulbs, they screw in hot tubs. Hedonistic Californians, you see, turning on the ambiguity of "screw" -- a "double entendre" is the fullest sense, where one meaning has sexual reference or overtones. Other lightbulb jokes involve disparaging references to interchangeable ethnic groups. For instance:  How many Polacks does it take to screw in a lightbulb? A thousand and one; one to hold the lightbulb, a thousand to rotate the building. Or there are specific, not fully interchangeable, ethnic references, as in JAP ("Jewish American Princess") jokes:  How many Jewish American Princesses does it take to screw in a lightbulb? Two, one to get the Diet Pepsi, the other to call her father.

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The Morality of Laughter, Note 3

A representative Aggie joke could be this:  An Aggie orders a pizza in a pizza place. The waiter asks if he would like it cut into six or eight slices, and the Aggie answers, "Six; I couldn't possibly eat eight." Another Aggie joke:  A group of Aggies were out hunting (not unheard of in Texas), but for the longest time they couldn't find any tracks. Finally they did, and they were following the tracks when the train hit them.

The Irish joke was about an Irishman who moves to London and, so that he could pass for English, took speech classes to get rid of his Irish accent and to learn to speak perfect Oxford English. The day he thought he was ready to pass for English, he goes out to buy some groceries, goes up to the counter at the store, and asks the salesman for some items of food. The salesman then says, "You're Irish, aren't you?" The Irishman responds, "How did you know?" "This is a post office."

Andy Kaufman's "foreign man" character, which became a regular feature (as "Latka Gravis") on the television series Taxi, can easily be seen as a generalized mockery of foreigners. On Taxi Latka became someone represented affectionately; but in his edgier standup act, Kaufman would try to draw rather cruel laughter, and then would act genuinely hurt and confused by the response. This was an aspect to his comedy, which was to play with the boundary between what is funny and what is unfunny. His routine of wrestling women left people wondering whether he was serious, and crazy, or doing one of his put-ons. Because of this kind of thing, many people still wonder whether Andy really died of cancer, or whether this was his ultimate put-on -- and he is actually living in quiet and happy retirement. He never did like doing television very much (he even worked as a busboy for a while at Jerry's Deli in Studio City while he was doing Taxi), and it is not inconceivable that his ultimate joke involved getting out of the business.

Certain professions draw hostile humor. There are many lawyer jokes. For instance:  What do you call a lawyer buried up to his neck in sand? A good start. This can branch out from simple lawyers:  What do you call a lawyer with an IQ of 50? "Your honor." This may have originated with lawyers themselves, reflecting hostility for judges.

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